GIRL WITH A RED BON­NET

She was a muse to Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec and a cel­e­brated artist in her own right – so why is SUZANNE VALADON, once one of the most fa­mous fig­ures of the Mont­martre mi­lieu, vir­tu­ally un­known to­day? Cather­ine He­witt re­ports

Irish Daily Mail - YOU - - EDITOR'S LETTER -

These days, if an at­trac­tive model slept with a chain of A-lis­ters, par­tied in all the fash­ion­able hotspots and then be­came preg­nant, we would know about her. If her child grew up to be a tal­ented artist and a rag­ing al­co­holic who spent re­peated spells in re­hab, she would be on the front pages of all the news­pa­pers. Es­pe­cially if, in her 40s, she then ran off with a man half her age, who hap­pened to be her son’s best friend. This is the story of the French painter Suzanne Valadon. Yet for most of us to­day, she is com­pletely un­known.

In the 1880s, Suzanne Valadon was con­sid­ered the Im­pres­sion­ists’ most beau­ti­ful model. She’s the girl in the red bon­net we see danc­ing in Pierre-Au­guste Renoir’s Dance at Bou­gi­val (1883), which now hangs in the Mu­seum of Fine Arts in Bos­ton. She’s the el­e­gant woman in the white satin ball­gown in his Dance in the City (1883), which greets view­ers on the up­per floor of the Musée d’Or­say in Paris. She’s also the sullen drunk­ard who gazes re­signedly out of the can­vas in Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s The Hang­over (1887-89). And if you visit the Na­tional The­atre in Prague, it’s Suzanne you’ll see as the winged fig­ure painted on the stage cur­tain by the Czech artist Vo­jtech Hy­nais. With her golden hair, dra­matic eye­brows and in­tense stare, it’s easy to see why she stole the hearts of the painters and their pub­lic.

But be­hind Suzanne’s cap­ti­vat­ing façade lay a pas­sion­ate, tem­pes­tu­ous char­ac­ter with an un­con­ven­tional past. Born Marie- Clé­men­tine Valadon in 1865, in ru­ral France, she was the il­le­git­i­mate daugh­ter of a linen maid. When her mother’s poverty obliged them to move to Paris, Suzanne – still a child – worked in one un­skilled job af­ter an­other un­til, aged 15, she was of­fered em­ploy­ment in a cir­cus. But just months later a fall from a trapeze ended her ca­reer as an ac­ro­bat.

Chang­ing her name to Maria, she be­gan work­ing as a model in Mont­martre, which by the late 19th cen­tury had be­come the un­of­fi­cial cap­i­tal of avant-garde art. Dur­ing the day it was a quaint haven, but when the sun set, the win­dows of hun­dreds of venues lit up, draw­ing a noc­tur­nal pop­u­la­tion of artists, pros­ti­tutes and anar­chists.

In Mont­martre, Suzanne’s beauty quickly won her admirers. With grow­ing con­fi­dence, she posed for – and had af­fairs with – some of the most renowned painters of the day, in­clud­ing Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec. It was re­port­edly Lautrec who gave her the name Suzanne, a ref­er­ence to the Bi­ble story ‘Su­sanna and the El­ders’ (Suzanne had a habit of pos­ing for older men). One piece of gos­sip ran that Renoir’s long-time lover, the un­likely, plump Aline Charigot, be­came fu­ri­ous when she saw Suzanne in his Dance in the City paint­ing, and smudged out her com­peti­tor’s face. And it was ru­moured that she tried to beat Suzanne with a broom when she caught her and Renoir locked in a pas­sion­ate em­brace in his stu­dio.

Suzanne basked in the at­ten­tion ➤

➤ she re­ceived. Then, one day, Renoir found her sketch­ing in se­cret and re­alised that his model was a tal­ented artist in her own right. In fact Suzanne had been draw­ing, pri­vately, since child­hood. There was no money in the Valadon house to af­ford draw­ing ma­te­ri­als, so she used stubs of char­coal and scraps of pa­per – what­ever she could find – to make her pic­tures. A prag­matic woman, her mother was fu­ri­ous to see her wast­ing her time, so Suzanne had grown used to keep­ing her hobby to her­self.

The Paris art scene was still a stead­fastly male en­vi­ron­ment at this time. Re­spectable, mid­dle- class girls didn’t work and if a woman had to earn a liv­ing, paint­ing was hardly a rea­son­able or lu­cra­tive method. A lady’s am­a­teur in­ter­est in art or mu­sic was con­sid­ered en­chant­ing, a sign of good breed­ing; paint­ing as a se­ri­ous pro­fes­sion was a scan­dal. Of course, there were recog­nised fe­male artists who had made a suc­cess­ful ca­reer of it. The pres­ti­gious (but con­ser­va­tive) Paris Salon – where rep­u­ta­tions were made and tal­ent show­cased – was grow­ing more re­cep­tive to women artists, and even went so far as to award 14 women first- class medals in 1879. But a skilled woman still strug­gled to gain even a frac­tion of the recog­ni­tion that a man of sim­i­lar tal­ent might en­joy. Even the ac­claimed Im­pres­sion­ist painters Berthe Morisot and Mary Cas­satt (whose del­i­cate pic­tures in pas­tel colours were ac­cepted as ‘fem­i­nine’) had to suf­fer the crit­i­cism of their im­me­di­ate cir­cle.

But in Suzanne’s case, her low class and mod­el­ling ca­reer en­abled her to en­ter the pro­fes­sion dis­creetly. When she pro­gressed from draw­ing to paint­ing, she ex­celled, pro­duc­ing vi­brant fig­ures and por­traits that showed the hu­man form in a frank, mat­ter- of-fact style. Suzanne’s pic­tures of chil­dren flew in the face of ide­alised im­ages of so­cial har­mony. Her young­sters were unashamedly naked. They were not posed but awk­ward, their scrawny limbs con­tracted into clumsy pos­tures; un­gainly, un­aes­thetic, but ut­terly nat­u­ral. Other artists showed what peo­ple wanted to see; Suzanne showed what was true. She spurned the no­tion of the ‘woman artist’ – she was an artist, pure and sim­ple.

Many found her work shock­ing: at a time when women were meant to be seen and not heard, Suzanne was re­bel­lious and out­spo­ken, re­fus­ing to be con­fined by tra­di­tion or gen­der stereo­types. But Toulouse-Lautrec and Edgar De­gas, who be­came close friends, could see her tal­ent. De­gas, the great painter of bal­leri­nas, was famed for be­ing caus­tic, opin­ion­ated and cyn­i­cal, but he en­cour­aged Suzanne’s paint­ing, ad­mir­ing her strength of char­ac­ter and af­fec­tion­ately call­ing her ‘ter­ri­ble Maria’.

In 1894, when she was still in her 20s, her work was ac­cepted to the Salon de la So­ciété Na­tionale des Beaux-Arts in Paris, an ex­tra­or­di­nary achieve­ment for a work­ing- class woman with no for­mal art train­ing, even if this show lacked the his­tor­i­cal pres­tige of the of­fi­cial Paris Salon. Once her abil­ity was pub­licly ac­knowl­edged, how­ever, her bo­hemian life­style pro­voked scan­dal. She had given birth to an il­le­git­i­mate son, the fu­ture painter Mau­rice Utrillo, when she was just 18, and to this day, the iden­tity of Mau­rice’s fa­ther re­mains a mys­tery.

From the out­set, Mau­rice was a dif­fi­cult child (he dis­cov­ered al­co­hol be­fore pu­berty, some say as young as nine) but the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of moth­er­hood did not tem­per Suzanne’s wild streak. Even while she strug­gled as a work­ing sin­gle mother, Suzanne en­joyed af­fairs with count­less painters – and the ec­cen­tric com­poser Erik Satie – be­fore even­tu­ally mar­ry­ing busi­ness­man Paul Mousis when Mau­rice was 12. For a time, it seemed as though she might set­tle into a re­spectable bour­geois mar­riage, but the il­lu­sion was shat­tered 12 years later when Suzanne be­gan an af­fair with her son’s friend, the painter An­dré Ut­ter, who was more than 20 years her ju­nior. Di­vorc­ing her hus­band, Suzanne moved – with An­dré and Mau­rice – into an ➤

➤ apart­ment in the Rue Cor­tot in Mont­martre, where they be­came known as the Un­holy Trin­ity.

Suzanne was a livewire who would not be tamed. One night she sur­passed even the most brazen of Mont­martre’s ex­tro­verts by slid­ing down the ban­is­ter at the Moulin de la Galette dance hall wear­ing noth­ing but a mask. An­other time, she was re­ported to have been seen wear­ing a coat adorned with car­rots and car­ry­ing a bou­quet of let­tuce leaves trimmed with snails. Then, she was spot­ted out with a menagerie of an­i­mals in­clud­ing a goat. Neigh­bours com­plained of loud, rau­cous par­ties be­ing thrown at all hours.

Hav­ing strug­gled in poverty for most of her life, by the mid-1920s Suzannne was earn­ing well, ex­hibit­ing and sell­ing her work through sev­eral renowned Parisian deal­ers. And Mau­rice – de­spite his al­co­holism, a con­stant shadow over their lives – was mak­ing a small for­tune with his nos­tal­gic paint­ings of Mont­martre street scenes. Suzanne was de­ter­mined to en­joy the ben­e­fits of their suc­cess.

Many a tourist on hol­i­day has gazed long­ingly at the derelict châteaux dot­ting the pic­turesque land­scape of ru­ral France. When Suzanne saw one in Saint-Bernard in the east of France in 1924, she didn’t sim­ply dream – she bought it as a coun­try re­treat for her­self, An­dré and Mau­rice. She also pur­chased a gleam­ing, os­ten­ta­tious Pan­hard car and hired a chauf­feur to drive it. And if the car was be­ing ser­viced or re­paired, she would take a taxi the 440- odd kilo­me­tres from Paris to Saint-Bernard. Suzanne had al­ways dis­dained fash­ion, but now she pur­chased hats and furs in all colours from Paris’s top de­sign­ers, which she knew she would never wear. When her dogs showed a lik­ing for a fur coat she had re­cently bought her­self, it im­me­di­ately be­came their bed. Those same dogs dined on juicy sir­loin steak that Suzanne had spe­cially pre­pared by her favourite lo­cal restau­ra­teurs, while her cats en­joyed the fine taste of caviar.

In Mont­martre, the sto­ries of Suzanne’s largesse abounded; she picked up 50 chil­dren from the lo­cal area and treated them to an evening at the cir­cus. She saw a young artist work­ing in the street on a cheap can­vas and re­placed it with one made of linen. She no­ticed a cig­a­rette burn on a friend’s sofa and or­dered them an­other. Taxi and train driv­ers were given eye-wa­ter­ing tips, while tramps found them­selves din­ing like kings.

Still liv­ing it up in her 60s, Suzanne was one of Mont­martre’s time­less ec­centrics. The Un­holy Trin­ity lived and worked at the Rue Cor­tot un­til 1926, when Suzanne and Mau­rice moved to a lav­ish apart­ment funded by Mau­rice’s dealer and the phi­lan­der­ing An­dré be­gan to lead an in­creas­ingly sep­a­rate life. Suzanne re­mained in Mont­martre – alone once Mau­rice mar­ried in 1935 – for the rest of her life.

She died of a stroke in April 1938, fit­tingly where she was hap­pi­est: at her easel. Her fu­neral, re­flect­ing her celebrity, was at­tended by the for­mer prime min­is­ter, Edouard Her­riot, and the artists An­dré Derain, Marc Cha­gall and Raoul Dufy.

In her life­time, Suzanne Valadon pro­duced some 478 paint­ings, 273 draw­ings and 31 etch­ings. Her sur­viv­ing works adorn the walls of per­ma­nent col­lec­tions across the globe. There have been nu­mer­ous ex­hi­bi­tions of her art­work since her death. Mean­while, Suzanne still greets view­ers with her chal­leng­ing stare from the com­po­si­tions of Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and many other great artists whose works now hang in museums around the world. In June this year, Suzanne’s paint­ing The Ac­ro­bat or the Wheel (1927) came up for auc­tion at Christie’s in Lon­don. It sold for €85,000.

So why isn’t Suzanne Valadon more of a house­hold name? Even for those who have heard of her, she re­mains Mau­rice’s mother, Renoir’s model, Toulouse-Lautrec’s muse.

Or she’s re­mem­bered for hav­ing rubbed shoul­ders with Pablo Pi­casso, Amedeo Modigliani and Vin­cent Van Gogh. Suzanne was in some ways a vic­tim of the cel­e­brated com­pany she kept. Her lack of promi­nence also owes much, though, to her re­jec­tion of the la­bel ‘woman artist’.

She painted what she saw with hon­esty, bold out­lines and strong colours. ‘I can’t flat­ter a sub­ject,’ she once warned an ad­mirer. Truth is not al­ways pretty. There was noth­ing half-hearted about Suzanne’s work – or her life.

Suzanne’s story is one of a se­ries of set­backs and chal­lenges. But she stood strong in the face of ad­ver­sity, both per­sonal and pro­fes­sional. By so do­ing, she dra­mat­i­cally al­tered women’s place in Western art. Not only did she never give up, she also made the most of ev­ery sec­ond. It is a valu­able and in­spir­ing les­son that stands the test of time. n This is an edited ex­tract from Renoir’s Dancer: The Se­cret Life of Suzanne Valadon by Cather­ine He­witt, to be pub­lished by Icon Books on Thurs­day, price €35

THERE WAS NOTH­ING HALF-HEARTED ABOUT SUZANNE’S WORK – OR HER LIFE”

Suzanne in her stu­dio, above, and, right, painted by Renoir in Dance in the City. Op­po­site: in Renoir’s Dance at Bou­gi­val

Clock­wise from left: Suzanne’s por­trait of her son; a paint­ing by Mau­rice, and Suzanne with Mau­rice as an adult (left) and his friend and her lover An­dré

Suzanne with her son Mau­rice, below, and, right, a por­trait of Suzanne by Toulouse-Lautrec

Suzanne in The Hang­over by Toulouse-Lautrec, left, and, above, her paint­ing Ger­maine Ut­ter in Front of Her Win­dow. Op­po­site: Suzanne’s Woman in White Stock­ings

From left: Suzanne’s Nudes, Fam­ily Por­trait, and Marie Coca and her Daugh­ter Gil­berte

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.